[12 December 2007]
Sam Pulsipher has many problems. Not only did he burn down Emily Dickinson’s home, but he also killed two people. And while he’s married and started to raise a family, the son of the victims begins to make life difficult for him. And then other writers’ homes start to go up in flames. Sam’s fictional memoir, which slavishly obeys the clichés of the genre, is one of the funniest books of this fall. Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England unsparingly anatomizes our penchant for narrating our lives—our bizarre insistence that our life doesn’t count until it fits a prepackaged set of cultural conventions. The book is a literary funhouse, and its best trick is how readily Clarke makes us believe in the gag. Sam is such an engaging bumbler that one’s heart goes out to him, one wants to believe in his story, even at those moments when it’s absolutely clear that we’re being had.